Sacred Springs and Holy Wells

At Litha, or Midsummer, the sun is entering the astrological house of Cancer, which is a water sign. In many traditions, this time of year is associated not just with fire, but with water as well — rivers, streams, springs, and so on.

Kildare - Holy Well

Image of the Well of Kildare by William Murphy / Flickr / Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

In the British Isles, sacred springs and holy wells were considered more potent than usual at the summer solstice. In Bairnwell, Cambridge, a Midsummer festival has been held next to a sacred spring each year since at least the early thirteenth century.

In many rural areas, local gods were often honored at holy wells and streams. Historians say it became a popular custom to toss a bit of silver — coins, pins, etc — into a sacred body of water as an offering to the god or goddess of that area. Near Pickering, Yorkshire, residents performed sacred ceremonies at a local well to ensure fertility of both the people and the harvest for the coming season.

Holy wells also appear prominently in Welsh and Irish legend. The healing powers of water are common in Irish myth, and in many cases the wells are sources not only of healing but also of wisdom and fortunes granted.

Pagan religions do not have a monopoly on sacred streams and wells. In Christian legends, many or Ireland and Britain’s holy springs are the domain of a particular saint associated with the area. It is believed that it is the power of the saint that makes the water flow, and thus the water is imbued with magical properties. Many of these sites became the destination of Christian pilgrims, seeking the healing powers of the water.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, many of these sacred springs and wells were boarded up or covered, as their presence was a constant reminder to the church of Pagan history. By the time of the Reformation, most of the sites had been forgotten. Around the late seventeenth century, however, it became stylish to visit springs and wells for therapeutic purposes, and a brand new industry cropped up around wells, springs, and streams. By the time of the Regency period, spas like the ones at Bath were a popular destination for members of the gentry, and springs and wells which had been lost to disuse were opened up again and presented for their healing value.

Many holy wells and sacred springs exist today on private properties throughout the British Isles and parts of the European mainland. Because of the relative obscurity of most wells and springs today, it is hard to tell how many are still in existence.

Saturday Spellwork: Words Matter

One of the things I always try to stress to people when they’re working magic is that words matter – and by this, I mean you’ve got to be REALLY specific. As an illustration, let me share with you a story from my own checkered magical history.

Way back when, in the days when I was too young to know any better, I decided that a recent speeding ticket would be the target of my witchy wisdom. I had gotten the ticket quite justifiably, because I was flying down the highway well over the legal limit when I got popped. I’d been traveling from Ohio to South Carolina, and there’s a stretch of I-77 in West Virginia that is just beautiful. It was a bright sunny morning in the mountains, I had the windows down, Guns ‘N Roses cranked in the cassette player, and was paying absolutely no attention at all to my speed, when I heard the bloopBLOOOOP of a siren… and sure enough, right behind me was one of West Virginia’s finest.

So, yeah, the speeding ticket was justified, I totally own it. Unfortunately, I was also flat broke, so when time came to pay it a few weeks later, I was all HELL NAW and decided I just wasn’t going to. I was 19, cocky, and dumb, so I decided that in order to make this $164 problem go away, I would turn to the recently discovered world of magic.

In all of my 19-year-old wild and crazy heavy-metal-punk genius, I cast a perfectly magnificent spell….

asking for “truth and justice to prevail.”

Boy, did it EVER. In addition to the original $164 fine, I also got a letter telling me I had to pay to get my license reinstated, because the state of Ohio suspended it when I failed to pay my speeding ticket. I also got slapped with two bills I had defaulted on in another state, because somehow the collection agencies had found me.

Yep, truth and justice sure as hell did prevail.

Speeding ticket:  $164
Past due phone bill:  $91
Fines from some other crap I forgot to pay:  $389

Learning the value of wording your spell properly:  Priceless.

Words matter. THINK about what your intention is. Remember the old adage about being careful what you wish for, because you just might get it? Intent and purpose are everything, so be deliberate, be focused, be specific… and be careful!

Book Review: Wicca, Plain & Simple

I periodically open my mailbox and find copies of nifty stuff from publishers asking me to review new and upcoming titles. A lot of times I don’t get a chance to do it, because I’m writing my own stuff, and I have a personal policy of never reviewing someone else’s material when I’m working my own. However, right now I’m in the middle of a very brief lull, and so I thought I’d share a few reviews with you over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to begin with Wicca, Plain and Simple by Leanna Greenaway, because I really like it.

Wicca, Plain and Simple, from Red Wheel/Weiser, is just what the title implies: it’s a bare-bones primer on the basics of modern Wicca, with very little fluff and no bullshit. It’s a good starting point for any beginner who’s interested in magical practice.

Like many of us in the Pagan community, Greenaway associates the word Wicca with the evolving, fluid version of Wiccan spirituality today, rather than the specific, orthopraxic original meaning as founded by Gerald Gardner – and although this is a small distinction, it’s one that’s important to keep in mind as you’re reading Wicca, Plain and Simple.

Greenaway starts off with a brief overview of witches and magic – who are witches, what do they do, etc., and then launches into some of the core concepts of Wiccan belief and practice. She doesn’t waste time arguing about terminology, but gets straight to the meat of things.

After a brief summary of magical tools – many of which will seem familiar if you’ve read any other books on Wicca or Paganism – there are sections on the magic of the moon, the garden, animals, and the Tarot. Honestly, I wish these chapters had been longer and more detailed, because this is where Greenaway really shines.

A few tidbits:

Page 30, Lunar Magic: "There are many theories about the Moon and how it affects us. One theory posits that the Moon and its phases influence our internal chemistry, pulling on the gravitational forces of our physical bodies. Another concept states the gravitational field of a full Moon changes energy particles that reach the Earth, influencing the way we think and feel by changing the functions of our brain."

Page 16, Wicca and Positive Thought: "Always make sure you are in the right frame of mind before you begin spell casting. If you are feeling ill, angry, or emotional in any way, your spell may be thwarted, so you should wait until you have settled down."

Page 106, Spells for Health, Wealth, and Prosperity: "The basic life issues we all confront relate to our security and well-being, and when life issues are compromised, we are stressed - we need to learn to find resolution and peace through these hardships so we can move on in our spiritual development."

She knows her stuff, and communicates it in a way that makes sense for beginners without dumbing it down for veteran practitioners. Finally, she wraps the whole thing up with spellwork, for love, money, and happy families.

While you definitely won’t need to learn everything you need to know from just this one book – or any one book, really – it’s a good primer on the basics, with solid information provided in an easy-to-use format. Greenaway did a great job, and my only complaint really is that, as I mentioned above, I’d have loved for some of the sections to be expanded upon.

Overall, I give it four broomsticks out of five!

 

 

 

Wicca, Plain and Simple on Amazon:

Disclaimer: A review copy of this title was provided by the publisher.

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Epona, the Gaulish Horse Goddess

Many times, when people hear the word Celtic, there is an automatic assumption that we’re referring to things related to Ireland and/or Great Britain. This is not technically accurate, because in academic terms, Celtic actually refers to a language group. The Celtic languages were present not only on the island of what is now Great Britain, but also in several areas within the European mainland.

One of the most influential groups of the pre-Roman era was the Gauls. This group, which was not a single unified culture but rather a collection of hundreds of tribes, inhabited the areas that are now France, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of Germany and the Czech Republic.

Like most Celtic deities – of which there were several hundred – the Gaulish gods and goddesses were often deities of place. They were typically associated with a specific location – a sacred spring or a holy well, a rock formation – and not necessarily honored by anyone who lived elsewhere. However, a few deities appear to have been celebrated on a more widespread scale.

Epona, the Gaulish horse goddess, is one of these.

Similar in attribute to the Welsh goddess Rhiannon, who appears in the Mabinogion, Epona was associated with not only the magic and power of the horse, but also the fertility of motherhood. Dedications in her honor have been found all over what was once the ancient Celtic world, indicating that she was not a localized goddess at all, but one who was honored far and wide.

Epona, patroness of horses, was a Celtic goddess popular in many parts of Europe

Image of Epona by Tilemahos Efthimiadis / Flickr / Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A likely explanation for Epona’s widespread appeal is that she was a popular goddess with travelers and merchants, who appear to have left offerings in her honor before departing on a lengthy journey.

They also thanked her for a safe arrival upon reaching their destinations.

Epona was also popular with another geographically mobile group: Roman cavalrymen, who adopted her as a patron during the time when the Roman Empire was expanding throughout southern Europe. Bear in mind that many Roman soldiers were not actually from the city of Rome itself, but were considered Romans because they were part of the vast Empire. As Gaul became more Roman, Epona became a protector of the cavalry horses and the men who rode them.

She was typically portrayed with images of horses and ponies, and often appeared riding a mare, usually sidesaddle.

Occasionally she is depicted atop the mare completely nude. In many images, she is shown distributing fruits and grains, or depicted with a young foal, to symbolize her role as a fertility goddess. Altars in her honor have been discovered in a number of locations across Western Europe. Perhaps the most notable finds have been inscriptions to Epona in the Burgundy region, an area that has been a center of horse breeding for centuries. Burgundy is also the home of the only known temple to Epona, at Entrains-sur-Nohain, Nievre.

Of note, Epona is the only Celtic or Gaulish deity to have been honored with a festival in the city of Rome. Each year on December 18, a celebration was held in her honor in Rome, although it does not appear to be something that actually took place in Gaul. The Festival of Epona was a time when worshipers paid tribute to horses, erecting shrines and altars in their stables, and sacrificing animals in Epona’s name.

In the English parish of Uffington, there is a large prehistoric chalk horse, or geoglyph, displayed upon a hill. For many years, scholars believed that the Uffington White Horse could have been an image of Epona. However, no one knows for certain – the Uffington horse was likely created prior to the time when the Romans brought Epona from the mainland to Britain.

Although she was connected with fertility and new life as a goddess of motherhood, it is possible that Epona and her fleet of horses were connected with the journey of the spirit to the otherworld. In some imagery, she is shown holding keys, or accompanied by a raven, both of which are typically symbols of the journey of the soul after death.

Basic Sigil Construction

Sigils are a great way to identify your intent when you’re working magic. A sigil is simply a symbol of your purpose – for instance, you could use a heart to identify love, or a dollar sign to indicate money. Those are the easy ones – and certainly, there are a floppity-million other symbols you can use. If you want to do the standard issue symbols, pick up a copy of Raymond Buckland’s Signs, Symbols, and Omens – it’s chock full of great suggestions.

That being said, one way to connect your intent to your working even more effectively is to create a unique symbol of your own. This sort of “locks the magic in,” or at least, it does in a number of modern magical traditions. The very act of creation is part of the magical process.

So, I thought I’d share my tried-and-true method of sigil construction. This is a pretty bare bones method, but it works. It’s a great way to create a symbol that’s unique to you and your purpose, and you can utilize it for ANY magical working at all.

Let’s say you want to do a working for love. Start by taking a piece of paper and writing the word love on it, like so:

Next, eliminate the consonants, so what you have left is this:

For the final step, take these remaining letters, and combine them to create a single symbol that you can use in your workings:

When you use it, even if someone else sees it, you’re the only person who knows what it means.

Okay, let’s do another one, that’s a little more complicated – how about protection?

Just like before, we’re going to eliminate the vowels. There are also two letter T’s, so we’re going to get rid of the second one. Ditch any duplicate letters, so you get this:

 

 

 

 

Then, for the last step, we’ll combine these remaining five letters into a single symbol:

It doesn’t look like much of anything, except maybe Tolkien’s Tengwar script, or perhaps the symbol for a musician formerly known as something else. But you know it means protection… and that means you can write it, draw it, or paint it anywhere you like, and no one will ever know.

 

The History of the Sheela na Gig

Although the Sheela-na-Gig is technically the name applied to the carvings of women with exaggerated vulvas that have been found in Ireland and England, there’s a theory that the carvings are representative of a lost pre-Christian goddess. Typically, the sheela-na-gig adorns buildings in areas of Ireland that were part of the Anglo-Norman conquests in the 12th century. She is shown as a homely woman with a giant yoni, which is spread wide to accept the seed of the male.

St Mary and St David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Sheela na Gig image by Amanda Slater / Flickr / Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Folkloric evidence indicates a long-standing theory that the figures were part of a fertility rite, similar to “birthing stones,” which were used to bring on conception, but scholars have been questioning that lately.

Although traditionally the sheela has been regarded as a representation of a fertility goddess, John Harding, spokesman for the national Sheela na Gig Project, says, “the symbols are more likely to have originally been a warning against the sin of lust, before gradually mutating into a protective force against demons. In modern times, the sheela na gig has become a pagan symbol.” The figure is found all over the United Kingdom, as well as in France and Spain, and as far away as the Czech Republic.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, it is Ireland that the claims the most sheela na gig carvings, and the England-Wales border is the home of the best known carving, the sheela of Kilpeck Church. Experts say that during the Victorian era, many of the carvings were destroyed or altered, thanks to the repressive social mores of the time.

Eamonn P. Kelly suggests that etymologically, the sheelas may be connected to the second-century Saint Cecelia, who fiercely guarded her virginity and told her Roman Pagan husband that she was betrothed to an angel, and was therefore sexually unavailable. I’m not sure that line would hold water today, but at the time, it must have worked.

The Irish Gaelic name Sile is a derivative of the Roman Caecelia. Kelly goes on to point out that later Sile became associated with guardianship of the land, and the Sile na Gadra was a personification of Ireland itself. Kelly theorizes that “linguistic and folklore evidence suggests that sheela-na-gigs may have become associated with the protection and control of land and lordly status.” It’s entirely possible that the sheelas were not simply carvings of wanton and fertile women, or even of sin and lust, but guardians and protectors of the Irish people and the land upon which they lived.

Saturday Spellwork: The Speed Bump Saga

I’m a big fan of using mundane stuff in spellwork, because there are always things around your house that you can finagle into a magical application. If you’re a parent, especially, I guarantee you that there are plenty of kids’ toys that are going to come in very useful at some point. To illustrate this, I’d like to share a tale from about fifteen years ago, when my twins (who are now high school juniors) were toddlers, and we had a fairly impressive collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars.

At the time, I lived on a one-way street in a residential area, and because it was the connector between a large public park and a main artery, we occasionally saw cars going the wrong way. There was one local teenage driver in particular who not only went the wrong way A LOT, but he did it at about 55 mph. I repeatedly asked the police to stop him, but because he did it at varied times, they really couldn’t help.

So….. magic.

I got a length of Matchbox track, and labeled it with my street’s name. I put little piles of gravel to represent speedbumps at intervals, created several other obstacles, and then I got a red Firebird toy car to represent Jason (that was speed-racer’s name). I also got a toy cop car. Then I put a mirror at the end of the street.

I drove Jason slowly down the street, hitting every possible pile of gravel. I did this with appropriate “Ouch! Yikes! %$#!” When “Jason” got to the mirror, the cop car drove up behind him to dispense justice. There was a little more to this than that, but that’s basically it in a nutshell.

What happened, about ten days later: Jason came flying down the street the wrong way one afternoon as I sat on my front porch. Suddenly, for no discernible reason at all, he slammed on the brakes. He then lost control of his car, and slammed it into a lightpole directly across the street from my house, severing the lightpole at the base. Jason backed up, turned the car around, and raced away in a cloud of dust.

Aaaaaaand he left his license plate embedded in the light pole… which the neighbors and I happily gave to the nice policeman who came to take the report.

The cop came by later and told me that when they went to pick Jason up, he told them he had slammed on the brakes because he got confused and thought he was on the next street over — which has speed bumps.

  • Toy cars: $6
  • Mirror: 99 cents
  • Stopping a douchebag from running over neighborhood kids: priceless.

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No, Salem Ancestry Doesn’t Make You Special

A reader says, “I just found out that I’m descended from one of the witches from the Salem witch trials and I feel like this makes me have witchcraft in my blood. I went to a Pagan event not too long ago, and when I told everyone about this they acted like it was no big deal. I feel like I deserve a little more respect since my ancestors were Salem witches.”

I know it’s very exciting to discover that your ancestry contains people who were interesting, or even famous.

And sometimes, when we make a discovery like that, we want to share it with others, and we want them to be as excited about it as we are. So if you’re descended from one of the men and women who were convicted of witchcraft in Salem back in 1692, that definitely makes for fascinating family conversations around the dinner table.

However – and this is a big however – it doesn’t really make you a special snowflake in the Pagan community at all, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the people executed in Salem were most likely not witches at all. Other than accusations which were later recanted and apologized for, there is no evidence that the accused were anything other than victims of hysteria and fear.

In fact, most of of the individuals hanged in Salem (as well as elderly Giles Corey, who was pressed to death) were devout Christians.

(The one exception to this may be the slave Tituba, who is believed to have been from the West Indies, and may have had some knowledge of folk magic, although that is unclear and has never been proven by scholars. However, Tituba vanished, released from jail shortly after the Salem hangings began, and her whereabouts afterwards are unknown despite the best efforts of academics to learn her post-Salem fate.)

A second reason that it was probably treated as “no big deal” by the people you met is because there are hundreds, if not thousands of people alive today who are descended from the victims of the Salem witch hunts over three hundred years ago. Again, this does not make you unusual. While it may be a really big deal to you, to everyone else, it’s just a mildly interesting fact at best.

Finally – and feel free to take this with a grain of salt – your email indicates that you expect people to show you respect automatically based upon your ancestry and what it means to you personally. In the Pagan community – as in others – respect is earned.

It can’t be demanded, because you’ll never get it. It’s earned by your words and deeds, not because you happen to have a certain family tree.

Step back, take a breath, honor your ancestors and do a little more studying and research. With a little bit of experience and learning, you may eventually become someone who earns respect based on your own merits, without invoking the names of the accused men and women of Salem.

Just for funsies, here are some cool articles I’ve written on the topic of Salem, which should keep you busy for a while.

 

 

Book Update: Wicca Practical Magic

Book update! I know many of you are as excited as I am to get a copy of my new book, Wicca Practical Magic — and you will very soon! There was a slight printing delay and the new on-sale date for the print book is now 6/6 (the e-book will be available a couple weeks earlier on the original release date of 5/23).

I want to make this book a real tool for you, one that will impact your practice for the long run, so in response to the delay, I’m putting together an EXCLUSIVE PREORDER GIFT FOR THOSE WHO ORDER THE BOOK NOW! The gift includes a special download on candle magic, a special offer for purchasing your materials on moonaria.com and more!

Check out the details here: http://books.callistopublishersclub.com/wicca-practical-magic-preorder-gift

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